Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican and chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, thinks that congressional officials were mistaken to send a bill on the president’s program of warrantless counterterrorism surveillance to another panel.
“Chairman Roberts’s strong position is that this decision was incorrect,” said a senior committee staffer, who asked not to be named.
In practice, the decision will limit the input that the committee will have on the final shape of legislation.
The Senate parliamentarian, a little-known but influential official who makes decisions about the legislative procedure for Senate bills, referred Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine’s Terrorist Surveillance Act of 2006 to the Senate Judiciary Committee, after much behind-the-scenes negotiations, according to other Senate aides.
The judiciary committee, which is also working on a very different bill dealing with the program drafted by its Chairman Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, plans a hearing today on the issue.
Judges from the secret court established under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) will testify. Mr. Specter’s proposal would give the court authority over the program, which officials have said monitors communications into and out of the United States in which one party to the call is suspected of links to al Qaeda or another terrorist group.
Observers said that because it gives the FISA court this role, the referral of Mr. Specter’s bill to the Judiciary panel was a straightforward call. But the DeWine bill gives authority and oversight over the program to the intelligence panel.
“This is a piece of legislation about an intelligence activity, carried out by an intelligence agency, and where the only group of people fully briefed are members of an intelligence committee subcommittee and we didn’t get referral,” the intelligence committee staffer said.
The subcommittee, announced earlier this month by Mr. Roberts, has been fully briefed on the program and has visited the National Security Agency’s Fort Meade headquarters, from which the program is run. The subcommittee, along with the program it was set up to oversee, would be given legislative approval by the bill, which is co-sponsored by Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
A spokesman for Mr. DeWine said that the referral was a matter for the parliamentarian and the Senate leadership.
“They work with the sponsors, but it is not our decision,” said Mike Dawson, the senator’s communications director.
The parliamentarian’s office referred press inquiries to the office of the Senate secretary. No one from that office or the office of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, returned phone calls requesting comment.
In practice, the referral means that members and staff of the intelligence committee will have only a short time to work on whatever proposal emerges from Mr. Specter’s panel — 10 days, according to committee staff.